WASHINGTON — Air traffic control towers at airports in Oklahoma City, Norman, Stillwater and other cities might have to shut down and overnight shifts might be eliminated at Will Rogers World Airport if federal spending cuts are triggered next week, the U.S. Transportation Department announced Friday.
Moreover, the vast majority of Federal Aviation Administration employees will be furloughed, including air traffic controllers, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters at the White House. The FAA has about 5,000 direct government employees at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City.
LaHood's warnings came amid increasing concern that the automatic cuts, known as the sequester, are going to kick in as scheduled on March 1.
LaHood said the furloughs to FAA employees likely would begin in April and cause long delays — up to 90 minutes during peak hours — at some major airports.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also has warned that Transportation Security Administration officers at airports could be furloughed, and airline passengers might have to wait longer for screening.
President Barack Obama, who was asked whether he thought the cuts could be averted, said Friday that “hope springs eternal.”
“I've also been very clear that there's an alternative, which is for us to take the kind of balanced approach that I've presented, where we have more strategic cuts on programs we don't need, and we close some tax loopholes that are taken advantage of only by the well-connected and the well-off,” the president said.
Congressional Republicans have said they would not consider additional revenue to replace the looming cuts, leaving the two sides at loggerheads a week before the deadline.
Republican leaders have emphasized that the House has twice passed legislation to redirect the cuts but that the Democratic-controlled Senate ignored those bills.
LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, said his White House appearance was intended to prod members of his party into negotiations with Democrats.
“Look, this is a big deal,” he said. “It's a big deal because a lot of people — common, ordinary citizens — fly. A lot of people use airports. And this is going to have a real impact.”
Major entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are mostly exempt from the spending cuts, as are food stamps.
But most federal departments will have to cut an estimated $85 billion from March through September, and many are warning that they won't be able to do it without furloughs.
The Department of Defense notified 800,000 civilian employees this week that they may be furloughed in April.
The department, which will absorb about $46 billion of the cuts, also has said that training and maintenance would be sharply curtailed, along with new weapons purchases.
The Defense Department has nearly 24,000 civilian workers in Oklahoma, and the Pentagon has estimated a payroll hit of $129 million in the state if they are furloughed 22 days from late April through September.
The Justice Department is warning that FBI agents, federal prison workers and prosecutors could be furloughed. And the Agriculture Department says nutrition aid will be eliminated for many women, infants and children.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, said Friday that the White House, in the midst of the warnings about massive spending cuts, should cancel a 100-city tour of federal officials to talk about proposals in the president's State of the Union speech.
“If Washington is truly cutting spending on missions many consider vital, how can we at the same time promise and promote more financial assistance, much less afford this mammoth 100-city cross country tour?” Coburn said in a letter to a White House budget official.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday, “I appreciate that a Republican member has sent this around. I just don't have an answer for it, but I'll look into it.”
AT A GLANCE
Oklahoma airports could be affected
The Transportation Department on Friday released a list of airports that
could be affected.
Possible tower closures
Airports where air traffic control towers could be closed:
of overnight shifts
Air traffic control towers
where overnight shifts could be eliminated: